Among chefs, Dominique Crenn is a rarity. She can grunt through a grueling Iron Chef America competition, win it, and then charm Elle magazine into touting her cool-girl style in the midst of “frumptopia San Francisco.” Anyone who might doubt the juxtaposition of her lithe, fashion-forward frame with her culinary acclaim will have a hard time arguing with the accolades she received during her three years at the head of Luce, the high-end restaurant located in SF’s Intercontinental Hotel. In 2008, Esquire dubbed her chef of the year and the Michelin Guide awarded her a star two years in a row.
This winter, Crenn stepped away from the corporate hotel world to open an intimate restaurant she could call her own. At Atelier Crenn, the chef is unabashedly applying full artistic license. The former Plumpjack site in Cow Hollow has been transformed into a space that’s almost spa-like in its serenity. All staff members—from line cooks to pastry chef to sommeliers—participate in service. Crenn’s own poetry adorns the menu.
A playful reverence for nature and art—rooted long before Jeremiah Tower ever took her under his wing at Stars—informs her cooking. Here, a slab of foie gras isn’t seared to buttery richness as one would expect. It’s lightened with sous vide cookery and served with savory meringues and a scatter of foraged clover. Raised in Versailles by a family that valued art and agriculture, Crenn spent months each year at her grandmother’s potato farm in Brittany. Which is why a dish like her potato Memoire D’enfance—a fresh spud cooked in its own soil and served with Comte cheese—has meaning. “Some might say it’s pedestrian,” Crenn says, “but the food here is about memories, the story of the ingredients.”
To balance this simplicity, an abstract vegetable-centric dish called Jardin D’hiver swings to the other extreme. Made of an artful arrangement of jewel-toned carrots, parsnip puree, and crispy red quinoa, and scattered with a flurry of sheep yogurt “snow” that melts if you simply breathe on it, the dish is earthy, sweet, and soft all at once—and as ethereal as Mother Nature’s going to get. Crenn honors, as she puts it, one of her favorite fish, the salmon-hued arctic char, by plating it on a foraged river stone amid dry ice. It’s theatrical enough for Lord of the Rings—a presentation that will amaze some and send others running for familiar comfort at Pizza Orgasmica next door.
It takes a lot of conviction to offer in the doldrums of February a $95, 10-course tasting menu titled “Prelude to a Winter Night” in a city addicted to the quick and dirty allure of food trucks and hand-to-mouth eating. But Crenn is asking her diners to escape from this world, if for a few hours. Even the jaded will find that by the time the epilogue—entwining handmade chocolates, marshmallows, and pate de fruit in a mini bonsai forest— arrives, the surrender is very sweet.